I want you to know that in the hundreds of pages that comprise this book, there is a lot of joy. So much. It is a journey of figuring out how to embrace who you are and of unexpected love, a celebration of those who adore and accept every part of us, and, if I can be so bold for a second, pretty fucking funny.
But it would be irresponsible of me to let you begin without also mentioning the sadness that is very much a part of this novel. Jules’s story is mine in so many ways. The fears, the hiding, the hoping that one day we might reach greener grass. And, with that in mind, topics are going to arise that I want you to be prepared for, such as physical abuse and how that affects mental health, language used in a homophobic manner, and forced outing.
I’m not going to tell you oh, it happens only once or it’s not that big of a thing because one, that would not necessarily be true, and two, for those of us who have experienced abuse and trauma, there is no system of measurement. There is no I can handle x amount of this. There is only this is triggering.
Many scenes in this book triggered deep, emotional reactions, both while writing and still when I go back and read. This story is more personal than I ever could have envisioned when I first started drafting, and much of it I’d never taken the time to process before. I say all this not to diminish the beauty of the aforementioned joy you will find here but to acknowledge the reality that for queer people of color, for queer Latinxs, Chicanxs, Mexican Americans, joy is very much tied to trauma. Two sides of the coin that is our lives.
So, as the writer of the words that form this journey, I ask you to do me a favor and check in with yourself before starting. And I want you to know that it’s okay if you’re not ready for this book yet. It’s okay if you never are. No hard feelings. Te lo prometo y te quiero.
One question runs through my mind as I stare blankly at page eighty-seven of my Fundamentals of Physics textbook: Why the fuck did I let my friends force me into taking this class? I suck at math—am even worse at science—so process of elimination should have told me to stay far away from a subject that’s literally the worst combination of both.
“It’ll look good on your UCLA application,” I mutter, mocking Itzel’s know-it-all voice. I really let her convince me that taking AP physics would be a good idea.
Peer pressure is a perra.
After spending the least productive hour of my life wondering how large of a fire I could create with the book, I open Snapchat to take a picture of the homework gathered on my bed, adding the words SAVE ME and maximizing the font size for emphasis. It’s sent to Itzel. Seeing as it was her idea, the least she could do is send some answers.
Pushing the textbook and papers to the side, I mentally take stock of all the homework I need to get done tonight and what’s still left to do while I wait for her to reply.
I grab my copy of Cien Años de Soledad and flip to the dog-eared page marking where I last left off, humming along mindlessly to a playlist of those sort of soft, folksy pop, easy listening Spanish songs while I read. Kind of wishing I had some mango slices con chile y limón to really complete this Latinx aesthetic.
The novel is fine. Likable in a Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, all these old writers love to hear themselves talk sort of way. Something about spending hundreds of pages rambling about José Arcadio Buendía’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren until I’ve forgotten who’s dead or alive and who’s sleeping with whom really gets Gabriel García Márquez going. In a way that seems almost irrelevant when we live in a society of Twitter character limits and curated Instagram captions.
I finish one final annotation when my phone vibrates underneath me, and I go to Itzel’s reply: a picture of her completed homework—which I immediately screenshot—and a video message.
“We’re not even a month into the year yet and you’re already lost? You get this one free pass, Julián Luna. Next time, don’t be a tonto and wait until Sunday night to start your shit because you had to, I don’t know, probably binge-watch Selena for the twentieth time. ’Kay? ’Kay. Love you, mi pendejito. See you tomorrow!”
Ignoring her nags, I switch over to my photos, select the screen capture, and scribble her work onto my own paper as fast as I can. Not even worrying about trying to understand how she got these answers. That I can do tomorrow. Right now, the last thing I need is for Dad to barge in and see me copying my friend’s homework.
Weekend assignments now complete, I come back to the app to record my response. “Yeah, Itzel, I’m the tonto.” I pause to situate the curly bangs hanging down onto my forehead. “If I’m a tonto, it’s only because I let you and Rolie and Jordan convince me to take physics instead of advanced biology. I could be coloring a plant cell right now!
“We made a deal,” I say, brushing off her threats. “You said if I took this class with y’all, you’d help me when I don’t understand the pinche assignments. Stop acting brand-new, pretending you didn’t know that’d be an eternal mood. Anyways, thanks for the help, as always. I’m tired, so going mimis now. Te quiero mucho. See you in the morning.”
After only half listening to her next response of “listen here, coñito” and “we’re going over all of this at lunch tomorrow so you won’t have to cheat next time,” I get out of Snapchat and set all five of my morning alarms, labeled with varying degrees of urgency, starting with despierta baboso, then I know you’re awake and lying in bed all lazy rn, and finally, GET YOUR ASS UP at the end. Then I get up to put my books and laptop in my bag, turn off the bedroom lights, carelessly toss the UCLA hoodie I’d been wearing somewhere in the direction of my closet, and throw myself back onto my bed.
As usual, I give it ninety seconds of making a half-assed attempt at falling asleep before I’m back on my phone, flipping through Instagram. I scroll past selfies of Itzel, random person, random person, random person, and—oh. A nearly naked Maluma. Screenshot that.
Another minute of scrolling and then I stop at a #ThrowbackThursday picture Jordan posted last week. It’s from the final junior varsity soccer match of our freshman year. Both of us locked arms over shoulders with Itzel and Rolie, who’ve been going to every home game the past three years to cheer us on.
Itzel Santos is one of the prettiest girls in the entire school. In a Selena Quintanilla, Kali Uchis type of way (which is the best kind of pretty in my purely observational opinion). She’s the smartest student in our grade too. Dad thought we were dating for a while, and I can’t remember ever seeing him that genuinely impressed with me. I put off correcting him for months.
Rolie de Leon, or sometimes just Roe—whose actual name is Rolando, but he’s always hated it—is a good eight inches taller than I am and is a little pudgy. But I like it. I once used his pancita as a pillow during a beach trip. Best. Nap. Ever. And puro güero. He spends half the year looking more red than brown. He’s also the introvert of the group, but with this magnetic approachability. Plus, I dare you to try not to fall in love with him when he starts singing “Volver, Volver.”
Staring at the photo, I’m reminded of how we spent an entire semester in the same Advanced Placement courses before soccer brought Jordan Thomas and me together. When I let my eyes glance a little too long at Trey Guerrero changing and the entire team started talking mess, Jordan came to my defense. Not prodding me to admit if I’m gay. Accepting me from the beginning.
Since then, he’s been a constant presence in my life. Always there when I need someone to tell me to brush off my teammates’ assholery or just to hang out. Few weekends pass where we aren’t practicing or playing video games or helping each other with homework.
I double-tap our post-soccer-game throwback, since I failed to like the picture when he first posted it a few days ago, and close out of the app. Intent on that being the end of me destroying my retinas tonight. I need to go to bed.
I toss and turn, unable to find an ideal sleep position. More, unable to get shirtless Maluma off my mind. And other parts of my body.
I glance at my phone to check the time: 1:28 a.m. I’m going to regret not being asleep by now. But also, Maluma and me on our private yacht somewhere in the Caribbean. Clothing optional and strongly unrecommended.
Sleep can wait a few minutes.
“What should I wear today?” I ask myself out loud, looking through my closet full of forest-green, navy, and white shirts. Pretending that my Catholic school dress code doesn’t suffocate my fashion sense.
I guess this. I pull out a dark-green button-up shirt, basing my decision completely on the fact that it’s my least wrinkled option and I’m feeling too lazy to iron this morning.
A little smoothing out the front of the shirt with my hands and it’s good to go. Then a pair of navy chino shorts that rise a couple of inches above my knees and show off my made-by-soccer butt. Being a towering five foot seven, that was basically the one sport Dad had any hopes of me ever being any good at.
My fingers brush through wavy curls of hair that go between black and a tinted dark, dark brown from sun and saltwater, attempting to create the perfect amount of disheveled that says cool instead of just had sex hair. Then I grab my backpack and slip on a pair of moccasins.
“Buenos días, mi’jo,” Dad yells when he hears my bedroom door open.
“Morning, Dad,” I reply, finding him in the kitchen. He hands me a tortilla with refried beans, avocado, and jalapeño slices and a Yeti cup filled with orange juice.
Dad pats me on the back a couple of times, and if he notices the way my eyes close and the muscles tighten where his hand hits, and how I don’t even breathe until he stops, he doesn’t say anything about it. Too in a hurry to get to the front door, already in a rush to hit the road.
We rarely see each other during the week, since he works at a chemical plant an hour and a half outside Corpus Christi and spends his days off driving for Lyft and Uber or taking on menial physical jobs around the neighborhood. His absence isn’t exactly unwanted, though.
Our relationship has always been rocky. We have our good times, and it’s not as if we don’t get along at all. I could never not love him. But he’s forever full of criticisms, and most days there’s a tangible tension between the two of us.
Don’t talk like a pinche sissy, he would say when he’d overhear Itzel and me FaceTiming.
And before going to Abuelita’s funeral when he told me, I better not see you acting all chillona. One of the many times he’s warned me against showing any emotions that could embarrass him.
Or in those rarer moments he gets physical. Like at Itzel’s quinceañera, when he found me in the corner of the dance hall talking to one of her cousins, at exactly the moment his hand reached over to mine. I had to get pretty creative explaining the bruises at soccer practice the next day.
It’s because he knows. He’s known I’m gay even before I knew it myself. Before I knew what the word was. And he’s intent on keeping me from acknowledging it. Intent on ensuring I hate that part of myself.
Seventeen years of pressure to be this rigid presentation of a heterosexual, machismo Mexican American young man. All in the name of paternal love and care.
Only one more year. And then graduation, and I can take a one-way flight to Los Angeles for college. Some distance would definitely do us both good.